The Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris) is an iconic grassland bird that has endeared itself to residents and tourists alike. Curios abound showing off their clearly identifiable black or grey plumage with vivid white spots: tiny clay figurines, cloths, mugs, brooches and table mats.
Everyone seems to feel an affinity for these birds with characteristically bald faces and necks covered with blue skin. The wattles are red and they have a triangular horn-shaped casque or ‘helmet’ on their crown.
Flocks of them were present on my father’s farm. He didn’t use insecticide when growing cotton, arguing that the guineafowl did the job for him as they ranged through the cotton lands, picking off the pests as they went. They make for good eating too and have been hunted for sport. My father, however, would only shoot one now and then – strictly for the pot – as he wished to encourage their presence on the farm.
They forage on the ground, although fly up when disturbed. As evening approached I would sometimes see them roosting in the lower branches of trees on the farm. Their chuckling cackle remains one of my favourite sounds in the wild. I was delighted to hear that sound when we moved to the Eastern Cape and loved seeing them out in the open when we walked through the veld on the hill opposite our home. Alas, the area has become pitted with houses and the guineafowl have either been hunted out or chased away by dogs, people or the traffic.
Catching sight of them in the veld still lifts my spirits and transports me back to my growing up years, so far in time and distance from where I am now.
Here a small flock of Helmeted Guineafowl can be seen pecking in the grass in front of the Ngulube Waterhole in the Addo Elephant National Park.
One cannot do any serious bird watching while in the company of those for whom animals are the most interesting. Here then is a sample of the birds I saw in passing whilst in the Mountain Zebra National Park. This Streaky-headed Seedeater (Crithagra gularis) was perched in a tree outside the communal kitchen in the rest camp. There were many of them all over the park:
Apart from seeds, they eat fruit, flowers, buds, nectar and insects. A similar diet is followed by the White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (Plocepasser mahali). The rest camp is awash with these birds and their untidy grass nests are evident everywhere in the park:
Having heard its melodious calls for two mornings in a row without seeing one, I felt privileged when this Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra) posed for me on a low branch outside the administration building. These birds eat insects, fruit and small vertebrates.
It is less easy to identify birds while driving. Could this be a Sabota Lark (Calendulauda sabota) posing on a termite mound?
There is no mistaking the Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris). These iconic birds grace any landscape as flocks of them pick their way through the veld looking for bulbs, roots, seeds and invertebrates.
This Ant-eating Chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora) was easy to identify too.
Given how little water there is at the moment, it was a bonus coming across a Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) looking for insects, worms, tadpoles, or even small fish at the edge of a dam.
Lastly, this Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus) showed no interest in posing for a photograph – he clearly had better things to do!
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